Capriati's comeback is turning full circle

After knocking out the plucky British girl Elena Baltacha on Friday, Jennifer Capriati confessed she had known next to nothing about her opponent: "I saw her briefly on TV and that's about it.''

Capriati, who has emerged as one of the favourites for Wimbledon, was surprised and impressed by Baltacha, whom she beat 6-4 6-4. I didn't expect her to play so well,'' the American said. "She hit a lot of balls back and she had a big serve. I just kept looking at the radar. I was blinking my eyes. 'Are those really coming at me at 116mph?' Elena has got real potential. She's talented, especially on the serve, and she moves well. I don't even know how old she is.''

When Capriati was told that Baltacha had been battling a liver disease she replied: "I heard something about it but I didn't know what it was. It's amazing. I'm happy for her to come back.'' When we're talking comebacks, Capriati, of course, is a world-beater. To recap, this is the girl who at the age of eight appeared in a magazine with Chris Evert. By 10 she had $6 million in endorsements, and when she turned professional in 1990 she was still only 13.

Capriati's rise and fall was spectacular. A first-round exit from the US Open in 1993 coincided with the break-up of her parent's marriage, and in December of that year she was accused of stealing a ring from a shop in Tampa. Five months later she was arrested for possessing marijuana at a party in a motel in Coral Gables, Florida, and was ordered to undertake drug rehabilitation. Others in her company were charged with possessing heroine and crack cocaine.

The police mugshot of Capriati showed a teenager who had been living in the shadows in the Sunshine State. "She spent a lot of time in the darkness,'' her mother, Denise, said. With the encouragement of her father, Stefano, her lifelong coach, Capriati was coaxed back to the game. She was overweight and underpowered. "I told myself to do this thing right or don't do it,'' she said. She worked out at the gym, the swimming pool and the track, and won her first title for six years in 1999.

"When Jennifer is feeling better about herself she plays better,'' Denise said. "When she plays better she feels better about herself.'' In 2001, Capriati won the Australian Open, beating Martina Hingis in the final, and then took the French Open, defeating Hingis and Serena Williams in the process. Although she beat Serena in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon after being a set and 5-3 down, her Grand Slam dream disappeared in the semis. Nevertheless, the most celebrated victim of burnout had displaced Hingis as the world No1.

Hingis has since retired from tennis at 23, and the quality of the women's field here has been diluted by injuries. The experience of players like Capriati and Hingis, who were whacking two-fisted backhands for big money before they could run, prompted the WTA, concerned about the wellbeing of their young members, to introduce an age-eligibility rule. From 14 to 17, girls were restricted in their number of professional appearances.

"I think the eligibility rule is kind of stupid,'' Capriati said. "If you're not playing you're practising for five hours a day and that's not really good either. All the pressure is on you to win right away, because you might not have another chance for a while. They've talked about shortening the schedule a little bit, but not everyone has access to the best therapists or trainers. It's kind of how your body is, how you're built. Perhaps the girls get injured because they play harder week in and week out.

"It seems to me that there's strength in depth in the women's game. I don't breeze through tournaments, and the attitude of the girls today is that they have no fear. They're young and feisty. They come out and they don't care who's across the net and they just believe that they can win. We're seeing more girls who think they can beat the top players.''

Girls like Baltacha? "Yeah, I think her drive is going to take her a long way,'' Capriati said. "She obviously has a lot of determination, and just wanting it is half of it. The rest is taking care of her health and making sure she doesn't overdo it, especially coming back from an illness.''

At the age of 28 Capriati has been there and done it. "Everyone's different. I don't know what the life span of a tennis player is, but I think I've done it pretty well. It's not like I've constantly been playing tennis. I don't think I've overplayed. I mean, you know, I've had a few years' break, too.''

Capriati was last week named in the US Olympic tennis squad, the first time she has represented her country in international team competition since a falling-out with former Fed Cup captain Billie Jean King in April 2002.

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